The Malaysia Cup beckons — but for whom?

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I have many things to say about the LionsXII – not all of them are nice. But the overwhelming media coverage of this johnny-come-back-lately is as sickening as it is understandable. On the off chance you haven’t heard of the LionsXII, variously known as the LionsX11, the Lions, the Singapore LionsXII, and even Singapore, allow me to introduce them. I promise to be objective. For as long as I can.

This is a team of largely under-23 players, with five overage players, paying homage to Singapore football tradition by taking part in Malaysian tournaments. This is a direct result of the Memorandum of Understanding that was signed in 2011 between both FAs to strengthen football on both sides of the causeway.

They finished second in the table last season behind defending champions Kelantan FA, who won the double of the Super League and Malaysia Cup, and had many hurdles to overcome this season.

The loss of international stars like Khairul Amri, Shaiful Esah and Shahdan Sulaiman to S.League teams, the injuries sidelining an already-veteran Hariss Harun, National Service commitments guaranteeing a “fresh” team every other match, and the distraction of Bangkok Glass wanting to sign Baihakki Khaizan and Shahril Ishak, the departure of assistant coach Kadir Yahaya… the odds seemed to be stacked heavily against them.

Fast forward to 2 July 2013, the penultimate round of the Super League season. The LionsXII, marking their championship with a flattering 4-0 home victory to condemn FELDA United to relegation, were presented the trophy in front of a capacity crowd at Jalan Besar, incidentally also the interim national stadium while the Sports Hub is being completed. A nation rejoices. Singapore had brought back the coveted (not covetous, please take note Gilbert Goh) Malaysia Cup trophy after 19 long years, outdoing the Singapore “Dream Team” of Fandi and Co. in 1994. With the then key player and now head coach V. Sundramoorthy leading the squad, everything looked rosy for Singapore football.

Hang on…. Malaysia what?

It was the Super League, not the Cup, that the LionsXII had won. Again, a quick primer for the uninitiated – the Malaysia Cup is, like the NBA playoffs in US basketball, a competition for the top teams after the league season had ended. It has not even begun. Yet in falling over themselves to laud the LionsXII for their triumph in adversity, our media seemed to have forgotten a few minor details. Like which competition had been won. Also, that Sundram was, in 1994, playing for “the enemy”, Kelantan FA. And that the LionsXII, despite being solely composed of Singaporeans, was not the national team. Bernd Stange might have taken exception to that.

Don’t get me wrong. The football is good, I admit. I had the pleasure of watching them in action this season while volunteering at Football OPOD. Coach Sundram, derided for his “Bus Service”, has drilled the team well. They are compact – some say negative – playing away, and know how to go forward in front of their home fans. All in all, I might even say they were deserving champions. Some have even attributed the fourth Singapore AFF Cup victory in 2012 to the bonds forged by the LionsXII. It is hard to argue against that. Even off the pitch, the LionsXII have done a world of good, giving a new generation of Singaporeans heroes to get behind and a reason to fill the stands. Nothing to complain about there either.

It is one thing for the media to get behind a band of local heroes and give them the attention they deserve. What the lads have accomplished cannot be taken away from them. That much I understand. Player profiles, personal stories, injury news, team updates and match analyses are a part of covering a football season. But the stark contrast to the amount of attention the other local football competition, the S.League, receives is disturbing. Thirteen professional football teams, ten of whom are local sides, get far less column space put together than a single team sent overseas to compete in a foreign league.

Some might accuse me of bias: after all, I wrote on and off for the official S.League website, when I wasn’t off in Osnabrück. There is definitely some bias there. Yet all things considered, shouldn’t thirteen teams competing at least once a week receive more attention than just the LionsXII? To be fair, Today and The New Paper did run their stories on players, rules and matches in the S.League. For a time, the New Paper even had a weekly pullout special highlighting the week’s S.League fixtures, player interviews and selecting a team of the week. Even the broadsheet Straits Times chipped in now and then.

But it was just not enough. The bulk of the leg work – not to mention the fact-checking – was done by online media like aXrosstheline, ESPN Star Sports (now FOX Sports), Goal and OPOD, in alphabetical order. The print media would sometimes make glaring mistakes, getting the team name wrong, scoreline or scorers, or stating that the match was played at an entirely different ground. Details, to be sure, but important ones.

Then you have the cases where identities were blurred. Evidence will be harder to find now, but went around on social media – incidents of LionsXII being referred to as the Lions or as Singapore, or using the term “LionsXII” to refer to the national under-23 team… one facepalm after another, the print media delivers. It is no accident that the more reliable reports come from SLeague.com alumni like Shamir Osman (Today, New Paper) and Fabius Chen (Straits Times).

Let us get this straight: while the LionsXII are working on their Malaysia Cup campaign, the Singapore team will be preparing for their Asian Cup qualifying match against Oman on August 14. The Under-23 team will be preparing for the SEA Games in Myanmar at the end of the year, should they be even selected for participation. So while you support the LionsXII in their Malaysia Cup quest, please be sure you know who plays where.

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